Archive for March, 2011

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What Do You Say When You Can’t Say Anything And There’s Too Much Left To Say?

March 31, 2011


I want to say something important to you, but all I can think of is, “Arthur, take a piece of toast.” • Mother (Marsha Hunt) to son (Brandon De Wilde) as he takes off after his pregnant girlfriend in 1959’s Blue Denim, a movie I recently watched again. I never resonated with this line during previous viewings, but this time, I understood.

The last time I saw my mother, I knew her death was close. I knew that we would never again go anywhere together, not to Disneyland nor to a movie nor on the bus to downtown Los Angeles to visit Clifton’s, Olvera Street, and Union Station. I knew that we wouldn’t share another order of onion rings or split a combination plate—the cheese enchilada for her, the chile relleno for me. We weren’t going to sit companionably and watch an old movie. I wasn’t going to hear her play the piano or sing my favorite songs. I would never again get her phone calls wishing me happy birthday or happy anniversary or brightening my Saturday morning with her mother’s interest in my life.

As I knelt beside her bed the last time I saw her, countless never-agains swirled around me and I groped for meaningful words to hurl into the forever that would soon separate us. I couldn’t find them. They were hidden behind the façade of normalcy we’d complicitly erected in the months leading us to this moment.

My mother was hopeful throughout her illness. Her faith sustained her, and infused her life with a possibility that made it impossible to talk about the other what if, the unvoiced possibility of her death. This silence overshadowed our last good-bye as it had our conversations in the months preceding it. In those final months, hope seemed the least that I could give her, the most that we could share. I said good-bye the last time I saw her, of course, but it was little different from any other parting we’d had. I’d be back in a week, I said and I would see her again, I pretended, hiding my tears and smiling widely. And I hoped I was telling the truth. But I lied. She died while I was on the way back to see her, still hoping we’d have a chance to say those truly final words.

In our last minutes together, I told her I loved her, that she was a good mother, that I knew she did her best, that I was sorry for all the things I did or didn’t do that might have given her pain. I told her I delighted in all the fun we had. I told her that I’d stored up hundreds of sweet memories. But I wanted more. More said. More heard. She was too tired to talk by then—perhaps too tired to mother me through the emotional labor of her impending death. She labored to bring me into the world and I felt compelled to ease her exit from it more than I wanted something more.

And still, this failure haunts me. But how can you speak when love stills your tongue?

What failures haunt your life? What might help ease their pain?

Odd how much it hurts when a friend moves away—and leaves behind only silence. • Pam Brown

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Poetry Is Just The Evidence Of Life. If Your Life Is Burning Well, Poetry Is Just The Ash.*

March 5, 2011


The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse. The one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. • Aristotle, On Poetics

In The Sole Survivor, Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1983) said that “[a] poet’s autobiography is his poetry. Anything else is just a footnote.” Although music was her passion, my mother’s poetry was, she believed, her gift from a God she spoke with often, providing her with what she called pure moments of truth that she was always looking for, but seldom found.

Her poems represented this voice of God in her life, evidence of her strong faith, their words at the heart of her mission on earth. They provided her with transcendent purpose. The poetry in her head came, she told me, at times when she needed epiphany, bringing her grace and sustenance for life’s difficult times. She wrote “Home at Last,” the poem we read at her funeral, more than forty years ago, standing at the stove, my youngest brother a toddler pulling at her skirt. The poem “appeared all at once, a voice talking to me as clear as can be, as clearly as you are talking to me now.” It was this way with all her poetry.

Home at Last

by Eunice Wilkins Stukan; professional name, Carol Daye

If I should die, don’t weep for me!

For I’ll be where you’d like to be;

Away from all the pain and strife

That ever haunts us in this life.

I’d like no mourning at my shroud;

A sign to say – – – “No tears allowed

For she has gone to Heaven’s Gate,

And though you tarry she will wait.”

Time flies so fast, the years go soon,

Some lives are short, from morn till noon,

While others their full course do run,

And tarry yet when day is done.

This life is good – – – though oft’ too late

We learn this lesson, for we wait,

For things of greatness to impart – –

And pass an understanding heart,

Without a pause, and ne’er a glance;

The piper plays and off we dance.

We passed a tree – – – no time to look,

Or maybe ‘twas a babbling brook;

Perhaps a child with word and smile

We thought a nuisance all the while.

Yes, shed no tears for I have passed

To claim a perfect life at last.

You knew my faults, at least in part,

You knew my independent heart.

No, shed no tears, for there I’ll be

With friends who’ve gone ahead of me.

And when they ask of you, I’ll say,

“They’ll be along another day.”

No, don’t feel sad, I’m home at last!

My tears and trials are in the past.

Help finish what I’ve left undone,

It seems – – – so much – – – I’d just begun.

So, bow your head, in prayer rejoice,

In hymns of praise life up your voice

And thank the Lord for wondrous grace,

That gave me entrance to this place.

Yes, I’ll be waiting at the gate – – –

No, don’t be sad – – – you come, I’ll wait.

In the decades after mom wrote this poem, she shared it with thousands of people. I’ve been given copies by people who had no idea that my mother had written it. In the letters she left behind are many from people comforted by the words she gave them along with pots of spaghetti, boxes of homemade fudge, and, finally, when she was too tired to cook, half-pound boxes of Mrs. See’s Candies.

There are people to whom others gravitate and open their hearts, knowing that they have found a safe harbor. My mother was one of them.

What is the poetry—and purpose—of your life?

Your prayer can be poetry, and poetry can be your prayer. • Terri Guillemets

I don’t create poetry. I create myself. For me, my poems are a way to me. • Edith Sodergran

* Thanks to Leonard Cohen for the title wisdom.

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Wisdom From My Mother: I Would Like Everybody In The World To Know That They Have A Special Purpose—If They Really Listen To Themselves, They’ll Get Clues To What It Is

March 4, 2011

Note: This is long, but it’s for my sisters and my brother and my sons and nieces and nephews and my cousins to provide a record of what was shared at my mother’s FUNeral.

It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him [or her] for what he [or she] is. • Hermann Hesse

The buried talent is the sunken rock on which most lives strike and founder. • Frederick William Faber

In October of last year as her health continued to fail, my mother and I talked about the challenges facing artists in a world that often doesn’t seem to appreciate them. Mom began playing the piano by ear as a pre-schooler and until her death at age eighty-nine, made a living as an entertainer, playing the piano and singing. She was also a poet. She did not like housework of any kind although she had five children and did plenty of it. She was a good mother, but she was not a traditional one.

Before she died, she requested an inexpensive casket with pink satin lining and an informal service with only immediate family to send her off. She didn’t want anyone flying in for her funeral—“Save the money for a visit to Disneyland when everyone’s over being sad,” she said. Although her faith was strong, she’d not been able to find a church that shared her belief that that redemption would be a universal blessing and that a loving God would get everyone into heaven. Her service featured the piano music I’d secretly recorded her playing, hiding my iPhone so she wouldn’t know.

There is a Dakota Sioux saying that we will be known forever by the tracks we leave. My mother left her wisdom, she left her poetry, she left dozens of quotations she found meaningful, sending them to me and sharing them when we talked on the telephone, and she left the words of others—hundreds of others—who wrote to her over the years and who valued both her music and her poetry. The next time I write, I’ll share her poetry. Today, I’ll share other kinds of words we read at her funeral:

When I was going through boxes of mom’s correspondence, tossing much of it at her request, I found a Mutual of Omaha airline trip accident insurance policy. You used to be able to buy these policies in a vending machine at the airport. It isn’t dated, but on it was a note my mother had written to her sister, my Aunt Mildred:

If you collect on this policy, take a trip to Hawaii and think about how much Jesus loves you and I love you. Don’t cry, but be serious about meeting me later. My prayers will be with you.

Mom saved all the letters and cards her children wrote to her. As I divided them into piles for each of us, I read some of my own correspondence. In 2004, shortly after I graduated from a doctoral program, I wrote to her:

It has made a difference in my life to have your support and your belief in me. I have come to believe that these things are crucial in the lives of all of us who have dreams of possibility. It is difficult to remember dreams—and almost impossible to keep them alive in our “waking” real life. We need people who remind us of the importance of our dreams—and who believe we can achieve them. Of course, we must also believe in ourselves—it all starts there—but keeping the flame alight is infinitely easier if we are surrounded by people who will help feed our flames rather than extinguishing them.

Most of the cards and letters mom saved from the hundreds of people she corresponded with are gone now, but I could not resist saving a few of these testimonies to mom’s interactions with others so we could read them at her service:

I was cleaning off my desk and sorting out papers and every time I came across a card or letter from you, I glanced through it and by the time I was through, I felt so good and so deeply loved I had to get a letter off to you to tell you how dear to me you are. Did you know I have all your letters and cards in a box so now I have a box full of love. I bet this is the first time anyone ever had you organized and neatly put where they could find you when they want you. But having you organized and in a box isn’t any fun at all compared to having you unorganized and all over the place in person.

I’ve been thinking of you and I notice I smile a lot when I think of you and it’s such a pleasant feeling.

Thanks so much for the many cards, good thoughts, prayers, and encouragement. Your fudge always arrives at the right time. I call it “love calling.”

You restoreth my faith in myself just when I needed to be restored. Your very affirming letter is going to be tacked up on my wall.

My favorite letter is one that mom didn’t mail, writing that “Life is fascinating. You never know what’s going to happen. It’s full of surprises. I think you are in the middle of a big transition, so keep your receiving set open. I’ll be sending along some good thoughts and prayers to be oil in your wheels.” Before she died, she told all of us that when she was gone we should keep our antennae up for her messages of love.

Besides telling our own stories about mom, the other words we read were some of her favorite collected quotations, shared with me over the years:

There are two things that I want you to make up your minds to: first, that you are going to have a good time as long as you live—I have no use for the sour-faced man—and next, that you are going to do something worthwhile, that you are going to work hard and do something you set out to do. • Theodore Roosevelt in a talk with schoolchildren in Oyster Bay at Christmastime, 1898

The significance of a man is not in what he attains, but rather what he longs to attain. • Kahlil Gibran

Happiness is doing it rotten your own way. • Isaac Asimov

One who ruins the enjoyment of a wonderful experience with worry about things beyond his control is wasting a gift.  • John A. Nance, Turbulence

People are always waiting to be discovered. • Nathan Carroll

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid. • Albert Einstein

Mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in his foolish dreams. • An elementary school teacher about Albert Einstein

If you can’t be yourself, what’s the point of being anyone else? • Tennessee Williams

A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back—but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you. • Marian Wright Edelman

Your heart is full of fertile seeds, waiting to sprout. • Morihel Ueshiba

Every baby’s a seed of wonder that gets watered or it doesn’t. • Dean Koontz (2009), Relentless

Every memorable act in the history of the world is a triumph of enthusiasm. Nothing great was ever achieved without it because it gives any challenge or any occupation, no matter how frightening or difficult, a new meaning. Without enthusiasm you are doomed to a life of mediocrity, but with it, you can accomplish miracles. • Og Mandino

As a well-spent day brings a happy sleep, so a life well spent brings a happy death. • Leonardo da Vinci

The last thing I read was an anonymous quotation written in mom’s hand on a 3×5 card: Grieve not for me who am about to start a new adventure. Eager I stand and ready to depart. Me and my reckless pioneering heart.

What is your purpose? What is the adventure of your life?

If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use. • Charles Darwin (1887), Autobiography

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth. • Katherine Mansfield